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THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 1 



By George Melville Bolling 
Ohio State University 



In teaching the "Tenses" of the Greek verb the difficulties we 
encounter seem to me to be threefold. In the first place, the pupil 
meets with a new category, "kind of action," for which his native 
language offers him no parallel, and for which his experience with 
Latin can give him at the best but slight preparation. To acquire 
a feeling for such distinctions is difficult; but the student does 
triumph over harder things than this, and will in the end probably 
adapt himself to this phase of the situation. One of these harder 
things is the second difficulty, which is of a diametrically opposite 
nature. About the expression of temporal distinctions the Greek 
language is, as compared either with Latin or with a modern 
language, surprisingly indifferent. And indifference toward a 
category recognized by his native language is a state of mind most 
difficult for a naive speaker to attain. For him such distinctions 
are necessary forms of thought, and he has a touchingly childlike 
confidence that somehow they are made in the new language — -if 
only he may discover how. Indeed, such feelings, backed by the 
habit of interpreting language in the light of logic and not of 
psychology, have left their mark upon our Greek grammars, but 
that is a chapter in the history of linguistic studies that still remains 
to be written. 

These difficulties he in the nature of the subject and are unavoid- 
able. So far as they are concerned the present paper has nothing 
to offer except a plea for more frankness in recognizing and dealing 
with them. But the third — and to my mind the worst — difficulty 
is of our own making, or rather a part of our inheritance, and I 
believe that we can and should free ourselves of it. 

This difficulty is created by the fact that we insist upon using 
one term, "tense," to designate two categories — tense properly so 

1 Read at the thirteenth annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle 

West and South. 

104 



THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 105 

called and aspect — and, what increases the confusion, two categories 
that are by no means coextensive. The recognition of these cate- 
gories goes back to Curtius, and so unfortunately does the effort 
to bind them together in terminology. Instead of giving to these 
categories separate names, he clung to the traditional rubric and 
endeavored to bring under it his new idea: the tenses tempora, 
Zeitformen have two functions, the expression of Zeitstufe, and 
Zeitart. The terms thus coined have passed into English termi- 
nology in translations that have added to the confusion, as may be 
seen from Gildersleeve, "Brief Mention," .4/P, XXXVII, 112 f. 
That what Curtius had in mind could not properly be designated 
Zeitart has long been recognized in the scientific grammar of Ger- 
many, and the term has been corrected in syntactical discussions to 
Aktionsart with much profit in resulting clearness of thought. 1 

Of the results of this resolution to put two quarts into a one- 
quart jug, it seems hardly necessary to speak. Still I may be 
permitted to call attention to one or two things which our present 
terminology does for us. We teach the student to speak of present 
optative, aorist optative (which he interprets past optative), perfect 
optative, future optative — and then tell him that the difference 
between these tenses is not one of time. It is the same with the 
participle, infinitive, and subjunctive — only here the student is 
inclined (not unreasonably) to want also an imperfect and future 
subjunctive. Then the terms perfect, pluperfect, future perfect, 
have for him definite ideas — that these forms express the completion 
of one action at a time prior to the occurrence of another action. 
The Greek forms thus misnamed express nothing of the sort, and 
indeed all expression of "relative" time is foreign to the verbal 
forms of the Greek language. 

However, it is not my wish to dwell upon the imperfections of 
the traditional system. I prefer to try to show something better 
that may be put in its place. I shall do that in the form of a 
treatment of the subject such as might, I believe, be given in a 
beginner's Greek book. It would run somewhat as follows: 

1 Stahl, to be sure, reverted to the form Zeitart, but that is properly condemned 
as a gliicklich iiberwundener Begrijf in Brugmann-Thumb, Griechische Grammatik, 
p. 540, n. 1. 



106 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

TENSE AND ASPECT 

For speakers of English the most important category of the 
verb is that of tense. Except the infinitive, no form of our verb 
can be used without expressing the time of the action. Further- 
more, we are in the habit of analyzing and expressing temporal 
relations with a great deal of nicety and distinctness. Such habits 
are, however, neither necessary forms of thought (as they appear 
to one who knows no language but English) nor are they universal. 
There are languages which do not express any of these temporal 
relations in the forms of their verbs. These languages have no 
tenses. The fact may seem surprising, but a little reflection will 
show that such ideas can be expressed in other ways — by the order 
of words, by adverbs, by prepositional phrases — as clearly as may 
be desired. 

On the other hand, many languages have a category, not found 
in English, which may be called the manner or the aspect of the 
action. The actions of which we speak may, if we wish, be classified 
according to a number of points of view. For instance, we could 
put into one class all actions that are gradual processes of change, 
such as grow, decay, wane; or all actions that are momentary, such 
as find, hit, reach; all that have duration, such as live, grieve, hunt; 
all that consist in the execution of a series of practically identical 
movements, such as walk, run, swim, etc. But the fact that these 
actions are of these different sorts receives no recognition in our 
language, we have no forms of the verb that show to which class 
any action belongs. In some other languages, on the contrary, such 
differences are expressed in sets of forms which are in outward 
appearance comparable with our tense forms, and which may be 
called the aspects of the verb. The speaker of such a language 
cannot speak of an action without showing by the form used to 
what aspect it belongs; just as the speaker of English cannot speak 
of an action without designating its time, without putting it in 
some tense. 

Now English and Greek — and I may add practically all the 
languages of Europe and the most important languages of Persia 
and of India — are descended from a language in which the category 
of aspect was richly developed, while the category of tense hardly 



THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 107 

existed at all. In general, the history of the languages of this 
family shows a greater and greater development of the tenses and 
correspondingly a greater and greater restriction of the aspects. 
The final outcome may be seen in English, while Greek represents 
a stage quite close to the beginning of the process. 

THE GREEK ASPECTS 

In Greek, aspect is the most prominent category of the verb. 
It is distinguished in all forms (with certain reservations for the 
future to be mentioned below) in all the voices, in all the moods, in 
the infinitives, and in the participles. 

There are three aspects to which the student must attend, and 
which may be described as follows: 

In the linelike aspect are expressed actions which are regarded 
as developing in a way comparable with the tracing of a line by 
a moving point, both ends of the line being ordinarily outside of 
the speaker's view; the line may be either continuous or dotted. 
Instances of such actions may be seen in: "I hunted for my knife," 
"I was writing a letter," "I used to write a letter every day." 

In the pointlike aspect the speaker's attention is either con- 
centrated upon a single point in the action, the beginning, as "he 
fell sick," or upon the end, the upshot of the action, as "he gained 
the victory"; or the whole action, no matter how long its actual 
duration, is in the speaker's view reduced to a single point, and its 
occurrence is asserted as a simple fact, as "He reigned thirty years." 

In the resultant aspect is expressed the existence of a condition 
resulting from a preceding action, as "He is dead," "I am robbed," 
"The door stands open." 

THE GREEK TENSES 

The tense system of the Greek verb is extremely simple, there 
being no forms to denote "relative time," no forms to show that 
one act is contemporary or prior to another. Such ideas are either 
expressed by adverbs or by prepositional phrases, or are left to 
be inferred from the context. 

There are three tenses which are used as follows: The present 
tense might perhaps better be called an indefinite tense, for it 



108 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

denotes not only the specific present, "I am now writing," but 
also the past (historical present), the future, "I go tomorrow," 
and is used for universal propositions true at all times, "Twice 
two is four." It occurs only in the linelike and the resultant 
aspects. 1 

The past tense is used of past actions in all three aspects. 
Formally it is characterized by a prefix known as the augment and 
described in a following section. 

The future tense, however, bears evidence of being a recent 
development, for in the first place futurity is expressed also by 
other means, especially in subordinate clauses, from many types 
of which the future is excluded. Secondly, the distinction of the 
aspects has not been carried out systematically in this tense, 
although the language can be seen working toward that goal. The 
resultant aspect has a separate form, but this is confined almost 
wholly to the passive voice. The other forms are used indiscrimi- 
nately for linelike and pointlike action, except that such verbs as 
happen to have two forms of the future show a tendency to dif- 
ferentiate them in this fashion. 

The tenses are confined to the indicative mood. The only 
exceptions are due to the development of the future. They are: 
(i) use of a future participle to attribute to a substantive as a 
quality the condition of being about to perform an action; (2) use 
of modal forms (optative, infinitive) for the purpose of representing 
the future indicative in indirect discourse. 

The relation of these aspects and tenses may be presented in 
the accompanying table on the synopsis of the verb Xwo (p. 109). 
It will be noticed that the symmetry of the system breaks with 
the addition of the future tense. 

The space, some three pages, devoted to this introductory matter 
may seem large, but it, supported by the terminology, will give 
the bulk of the syntax of the tenses needed in the beginner's book. 

1 The reason is that we feel the present as a portion of time that has some exten- 
sion, and consequently cannot be filled by a pointlike action. As soon as we mark off 
a point, however near to us, we must refer it either to the future or to the past. Notice 
that in English we cannot say "I am now finding my knife," while "I find my knife" 
would be used only as a historical present, or in vivid anticipation of the future. 



THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 



109 



What still requires treatment can on this basis be presented 
in a simpler fashion than is usually done. I will illustrate by 
indirect discourse, which I should present somewhat as follows: 

When a statement is quoted in indirect discourse the following 
principles are to be observed : 

I. The aspect of the verb is of course not affected by the change. 

SYNOPSIS OF THE VERB Aw. 
Active Voice 



Tenses 



Forms without Tense 






Future Tense. 



Linelike 1 . Illiii 

Pointlikef^ 1 111 



♦Periphrastic forms are generally used; cf. § — . 

t With its representatives in indirect discourse, Awoifu, kvo-ew. 





Linelike Aspect 






Subjunctive 
Alio) 


Optative 
kvotfu 


Imperative 
Ave 


Infinitive 
AvW 


Participle 
AvW 


Pointlike Aspect 


Subjunctive 
AvVw 


Optative 
AvVcu/u 


Imperative 
Avow 


Infinitive 
Avcrcu 


Participle 
AvVas 


Resultant Aspect 


Subjunctive* 
AcAvkoi 


Optative* 
AeAvKoi/ui 


Imperative 
A<AvK£ 


Infinitive 
AcAvkckcu 


Participle 
AeAvK(i>s 



II. Where there is a distinction between past and present tenses 
of the indicative (i.e., in the linelike and resultant aspects), this 
distinction must disappear when the mood is shifted to the infinitive 
or the optative. For the representation of the future there are 
separate forms — future infinitive, future optative — -that are not 
otherwise used. 



no THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

III. The mood is shifted in two ways: (a) After certain verbs 
of saying (including <f>t)ni) and of thinking the main verb of the quoted 
statement is put in the infinitive, (b) Other verbs of these classes 
(including elirov, and frequently \iya>) are followed by quotations 
introduced by on or ws and a finite verb. After present tenses of 
these verbs no change (except the necessary changes of person) 
can be made. After past tenses of these verbs the verb of the 
quotation may be changed to the optative, but even in this case 
past tenses of the indicative in the linelike and resultant aspects, 
when quoted, are usually allowed to remain unchanged, confusion 
with the present indicative being thus avoided. 

Whether such a system of presentation does or does not bring 
into a more easily intelligible relationship the facts of the Greek 
language and the terms employed in the teaching of these facts, 
is a question that must be left to the decision of others. If the 
verdict be in the affirmative, there is hardly room for further argu- 
ment as to the course that we should follow. One objection, how- 
ever, I should like to forestall. How is the student to pass from 
such a beginner's book to the Greek grammar ? Well, back of the 
beginner's book should be a grammar that will present the facts 
on the same basis. The purpose of our teaching is and must be to 
give to our students the power of reading Greek. Our present 
terminology has no value except as a means to that end ; and, if a 
better means can be found, our present terminology will have no 
value except for students of the history of Greek grammar.